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Coast Guard bill covers safety

President Obama is expected to sign a sweeping authorization bill that reorganizes U.S Coast Guard operations, increases maritime safety rules and calls for improved oil-spill prevention and response in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The legislation, largely written by Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, was blocked by Republican leaders in the Senate for the past four years. To get approval, several provisions were stripped from the bill in the Senate. Then in the House, many of these ideas were put back in and ultimately approved when it came back to the Senate.

What are the most important parts of the bill? Well, that depends on whether you are involved in the Coast Guard, the shipping industry, the fishing fleet or just want to protect against oil spills or terrorists.

In Washington state, the focus on oil-spill legislation was critical, according to Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth who has followed these issues for years.

“We have been waiting for this legislation and are delighted,” Felleman said. “To pass a bill of this nature is truly significant. In hindsight of the Gulf spill, everyone was wondering what we were going to do to prevent this from happening here.”

Felleman said spill-prevention and -response measures approved in this bill can be ranked alongside protections pushed through Congress by former Sen. Warren Magnuson in the 1970s, when Alaskan crude began coming into Puget Sound by tanker.

“For our neck of the woods,” says Felleman, “there are three things that are exceptionally important”:

1. Tribal involvement: A provision that encourages tribal governments to get involved in planning and response will improve the safety net for response to oil spills, he said. Tribal fishing boats are located in many places along the shoreline, and fishers know the local waters better than anyone. “We would be crazy not to better train and engage these folks up front,” Felleman said.

2. Port area change: The line designating Puget Sound as a “higher volume port area” will be moved from its current location at Port Angeles out to Cape Flattery on the coast. That will require more careful planning and perhaps additional response equipment to protect pristine shorelines west of Port Angeles. The provision essentially provides a federal endorsement of safety measures imposed under state authority.

3. Canadian coordination: Perhaps most significant, said Felleman, is a little-know provision that will open the door to serious discussions with Canada over marine traffic and oil-spill risk in vital waterways between Canada and the U.S. Coordination of marine traffic between the two countries is based on an international agreement that assumes that monitoring, maritime rules and emergency response are comparable across the border. This is significant because it is fairly well recognized today that Canada has fallen behind the U.S. in these matters. The new Coast Guard Authorization Act calls for new discussions regarding this “comparability analysis.” With more petroleum cargo coming from Canadian ports because of oil-sand development, this issue is becoming critical, Felleman said.

The bill overhauls the Coast Guard’s acquisition program for replacing ships and planes, including the $25-billion “Deepwater” program that has come under fire from Congress and the Government Accountability Office (PDF 525 kb) as a result of delays, cost-overruns and management problems.

“The Coast Guard’s Deepwater program wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and deprived the Coast Guard of the equipment it so urgently needs. This bill comes at a time when we continue to want to have the Coast Guard have the best resources to meet the mission and requirements of the job, but to do their acquisition in a responsible way.”

Design standards are increased for new or altered fishing vessels, and the bill requires increased safety equipment, drills and inspections. It also calls on the Coast Guard to conduct research into vessel safety.

The bill includes a focus on increased port security, including efforts to reduce the risks from hazardous cargo and materials that could be used in a small-boat attacks by terrorists. The bill also calls for increased coordination with commercial and recreational boaters who might be able to observe and report suspicious activities.